Algeria Releases Islamic Militants After Mass Pardon

Algeria freed a first group of Islamic militants Saturday after deciding to pardon or reduce sentences for more than 2,000 people detained during an insurgency in the 1990s.

Cries of joy rose up among families outside the two prisons on the outskirts of the capital, Algiers, when the prisoners were released.

As part of reconciliation efforts, the Justice Ministry announced this week that it would pardon or end legal proceedings for 2,100 convicted or suspected Islamic militants. Some 100 militants, convicted of more serious crimes, will have their sentences reduced.

The national reconciliation plan was overwhelmingly approved in a September referendum, an effort to turn the page on an insurgency that left 150,000 dead.

The exact numbers of prisoners freed Saturday was unclear, as was the nature of their crimes. About 20 prisoners could be seen leaving the two prisons outside Algiers, but prison guards estimated 200 were freed.

The plan foresees pardons for people convicted of crimes that did not involve massacres, rape or explosions in public places. But Algerian media reports said those released would include terrorists implicated in such crimes.

Released Islamic militants or terrorists will not be eligible for political office, and some must pay compensation to the victims' relatives. According to the plan, relatives of militants who were killed may also be eligible for state compensation.

The fighting started in 1992 when the army canceled a second round of voting in Algeria's first multiparty legislative elections, to thwart a likely victory by the now-banned extremist group Islamic Salvation Front.

Daily beheadings and massacres by Islamic extremists followed, and tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Government security forces were accused of playing at least a passive role in some of the bloodshed, which largely ended with a cease-fire in 1997.

Critics say that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation seeks to whitewash years of agony and that releasing extremists and allowing them home from exile could plant the seeds for future violence.